Marketers frequently talk about branding, but what is it exactly? According to Seth Godin (an author, business executive, and speaker who’s in the Direct Marketing Hall of Fame), a brand is “the set of expectations, memories, stories and relationships that, taken together, account for a consumer’s decision to choose one product or service over another.”
Branding isn’t just for companies with something to sell — it can help reinforce a nonprofit’s mission, communicate its values and attract donors and supporters. Nonprofits should pay attention to their branding and implement practices that will help capture the attention of prospects and send important messages about the organization.
These are the three hallmarks of branding:
- Strategy – before you create your visual identity and messaging, keep in mind the overall plan for what the organization does and why it matters; this will guide you in all your branding efforts
- Visual Identity – this includes the logo, graphics, colors and fonts used by an organization
- Messaging – a nonprofit’s name, tagline, mission statement and “elevator pitch”
A good brand instantly conveys the character and intent of a nonprofit. Strong branding enhances the good reputation of an organization and makes donors feel confident that they are donating to a worthy cause and to an organization with a clear vision.
Developing a Strong Brand
Start with the strategy of your nonprofit, which should be clear, concise, and focused. Develop your brand to align with your organization’s values rather than the other way around. Building your visual identity and crafting the words that convey the mission of your organization are two key steps to take when developing a brand.
Creating a Visual Identity
A visual identity includes the following elements:
Your nonprofit’s logo should be simple, eye-catching, and versatile. Visualize your logo on business cards, a website, and letterhead, keeping in mind it will be used frequently for years to come. Don’t try to cram too much information or too many design elements into a logo.
If you don’t have a logo already, or it needs updating, have a professional graphic designer create it. While staff or volunteers may be well-intentioned, a professional designer is worth the investment in the long run.
Is your nonprofit staid and serious, or do you want to convey a sense of fun and whimsy? Fonts go a long way toward conveying these messages. Your logo should feature a simple font that’s easy to read, and your other communications should use similar fonts that work well with the organization’s logo.
Find and use colors that work with your logo. A color palette of one to three complementary colors should be enough for a consistent and recognizable brand.
Graphics and Photos
Your branding guidelines can require or prohibit certain types of visuals and convey other rules. For instance, you might designate a precise amount of whitespace around images, forbid the use of stock photos, incorporate blocks of color or use ampersands (&) instead of the word “and.” These details set you apart to help create a unique brand.
Written and Verbal Messaging
Your organization’s brand is more than just its visual identity. Branding includes verbal messaging as well. Here are some key elements of strong written and oral messaging:
Often the mission of the nonprofit is conveyed right in the name. For instance, the names “American Cancer Society” and “Save the Children” tell you exactly what their missions involve. Sometimes it’s necessary for an organization to change its name if its mission has evolved significantly, or if the old name has become tarnished. For example, the Lance Armstrong Foundation changed its name to LIVESTRONG after Lance Armstrong’s reputation suffered due to his illegal use of performance-enhancing drugs.
Many nonprofits also have a tagline, often used in conjunction with the organization’s logo. For example, St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital uses the tagline “Finding Cures. Saving Children.” This brief line effectively conveys its mission. The New York City-based organization PAWS NY employs a logo featuring a heart, a cat, and a dog, and its tagline is “Helping People by Helping Pets.” With this tagline, donors understand that this nonprofit’s mission is twofold. A good tagline succinctly reinforces an organization’s mission in a way that’s easy to understand and memorable.
A mission statement is one sentence that sums up a nonprofit’s mission. Nonprofit mission statements should be unique and memorable. The sentence itself must be clear and concise, with no jargon. Mission statements should include several elements: an organization’s cause (who or what it serves), its actions (what the organization does), and its impact (the change that will happen as a result of the organization’s work. This list of 50 mission statements selected from the top 100 nonprofits list contains strong examples from some of the most successful nonprofits in the country.
An “elevator pitch” is a verbal statement that could be delivered during the length of a brief elevator ride — it’s simply a few sentences that make the listener want to learn more. Although an elevator pitch is spoken, it’s helpful to write it down. You don’t have to memorize it word for word, but you should have some version of an elevator pitch handy. In fact, everyone involved in the organization, including leadership, staff, and board, should have an elevator pitch ready for the next time someone asks, “What does your organization do?”
When it comes to your organization’s brand, it’s important to establish clear guidelines and to communicate these guidelines clearly to staff and board members. Brand guidelines include guides to both the visual and written/verbal elements of the nonprofit’s brand.
Visual brand guidelines include directives about how and where to use the organization’s logo and other assets. For example, you might specify that logo colors cannot be changed and that sub-brands can or cannot be added to the logo (if your organization has more than one location or many programs). You can specify which colors and fonts can and can’t be used, and include other directives about icons and graphics.
Verbal guidelines (sometimes referred to as style guides or voice guidelines)also help shape an organization’s brand. Perhaps you want to be perceived as friendly and approachable, and you want your staff to always refer to your organization using “we” rather than “it” or “the organization.” Maybe you want everyone to avoid certain phrases, such as using the term “survivor” rather than “victim”. You might want to discourage people from using phrases that you feel are cliché in your sector (such as “state-of-the-art”). Lay out all these specifics in your brand guidelines.
Employing Your Organization’s Brand
How, when, and where should you use your organization’s brand? Use the brand wherever and whenever you’re communicating about your organization: on its website, in written materials, on the website, and in social media posts. In addition, your stationery, letterhead, business cards, and annual reports should all be consistent with your brand.
Widely Recognized Nonprofit Brands
Amnesty International, Habitat for Humanity, World Wildlife Fund, American Cancer Society, and the American Red Cross are among the most widely recognized organizations in the nonprofit world. These organizations have strong branding that you can call to mind immediately. Their messages are clear and consistent, and their branding reinforces their visions. Take a look at these organizations and their branding elements to see how they create instantly recognizable and memorable brands.
What Branding Means to Donors
Branding assures donors that your organization behaves consistently. A strong brand fosters trust in an organization and tells donors that you’re staying true to your mission and remaining focused. Consistent branding can help build community and excitement about a nonprofit. Pay attention to your branding, and your donors will pay attention to your organization.
- ^ Seth Godin, “define: Brand” https://seths.blog/2009/12/define-brand/
- ^ NonProfitPRO, “How to Create a Winning Brand Strategy (and Why It’s Critical for Nonprofits)” https://www.nonprofitpro.com/article/how-to-create-a-winning-brand-strategy-and-why-its-critical-for-nonprofits/all/
- ^ Nonprofit Hub, “Tips and Tools to Build Your Organization’s Brand” https://nonprofithub.org/tips-and-tools-to-build-your-organizations-brand/
- ^ The Balance, “How to Write Great Taglines and Mission Statements” https://www.thebalancesmb.com/how-to-write-great-taglines-and-mission-statements-2502295
- ^ Nonprofit Hub, “Nonprofit Mission Statements – Good and Bad Examples” http://web.archive.org/web/20180206153436/https://nonprofithub.org/starting-a-nonprofit/nonprofit-mission-statements-good-and-bad-examples/
- ^ Stanford Social Innovation Review, “The Role of Brand in the Nonprofit Sector” https://ssir.org/articles/entry/the_role_of_brand_in_the_nonprofit_sector
- ^ The Chronicle of Philanthropy, “Branding Can Help Clarify Mission and Attract Donors, Say Authors” https://www.philanthropy.com/article/branding-can-help-clarify-mission-and-attract-donors-say-authors/